Sunday, 7 June 2009

Planet Observer

It is fun to ponder from time to time just what planet the Grauniad/Observer is on. As it lurches almost hourly now with Brown from a stance of sack-'im to back-'im to sack-'im to back-'im like some amphetamine-fuelled pendulum, its writers become more and more tangled-up in the confusion and less and less intelligible.

There have been several brain-addling pieces of incomprehensible rubbish and/or delusional froth in this morning's Observer, for instance. But I've picked on one of them in particular because of one assertion - or piece of Brownite myth-making - that seems to have taken root: that Gordon Brown somehow 'saved' the banking system he helped to destroy, and, of course, that because every other country copied his debt+bank-nationalisation model - or so the myth goes, studiously ignoring the reality that it's complete nonsense - he saved the world entire.

The piece is Andrew Rawnsley's, a commentator given to occasional outbursts of loyalist lunacy in between moments of rational clarity, (though his bouts are not as severe or frequent as those of, say, Tuscan Polly - as if that needs noting. Marina Hyde is exempt.). This is not the only reason to pour molten scorn on it, however, as will become clear once one has given it the once-over.

The morning after the night of his resignation, James Purnell told friends: "I feel liberated." During one of the most tumultuous weeks in the annals of Labour, the many members of the cabinet who jumped ship have looked happier than those who have chosen to remain lashed to the prime minister. In normal political times, it is the victims of reshuffles who look grim while it is the promoted who grin. In these strange days, it is the ex-ministers who have a spring in their step as if they have been released into fresh air after years chained in a dungeon. Those who remain in the cabinet clank from microphone to microphone to try to sustain the heroic pretence that they believe that Labour still has a fighting chance of winning the next general election.

I interviewed the former work and pensions secretary a few weeks ago. He was one of several cabinet members who talked to me for the making of Crash Gordon, my latest television documentary about the Blair and Brown years. Speaking in what was still then his ministerial suite, he did his professional best to stay on message, but he was not his usual fluent self whenever we touched on the subject of Gordon Brown. After he'd self-ejected from the cabinet, Mr Purnell explained to me that the interview prompted him to look in the mirror and ask how much longer he could go on contorting himself into expressions of support for a leader in whom he had lost all confidence. If he remained, he knew he would have to join the defensive chorus line of ministers trying to explain away the devastation inflicted on Labour in the local and Euro elections. He just could not face pretending anymore.

It could have been the beginning of the end when his resignation letter, explicitly calling for the prime minister to "stand aside", was released just as the polls closed at 10 o'clock on Thursday night. When he spoke on the phone to Gordon Brown, the prime minister was sitting in his war room in Downing Street with Peter Mandelson, once a close friend, then an arch enemy and now amazingly transformed into his most crucial ally. Both feared this was the start of a putsch which would finish Mr Brown there and then. Had other significant members of the cabinet also resigned, his premiership would have been over by midnight. "The opportunity was handed to them on a platter," says one of the prime minister's closest confidants. "They did not take it."

The fascinating question is: why not? After the obliteration inflicted on Labour in the county council elections, the party is braced for more and quite probably worse humiliation tonight when we get the results of the Euro elections. These are merely bitter appetisers before the full serving of calamity that faces Labour at the general election unless something radical happens to change the narrative. Yet there are still restraints on Labour committing an act of regicide which would have incalculable consequences.

The first is that Gordon Brown, even in such a mauled condition, remains a larger figure than anyone else in his cabinet. Since 1994, the Labour universe has been dominated by just two men. Tony Blair, who looks a luckier prime minister with every passing day, was one. Gordon Brown was the other. Many in the Labour party still find it psychologically difficult to imagine not being led by one or the other of them. Then there is the extraordinary resilience of Mr Brown.

A critical mass of his colleagues was coming to the conclusion that he was finished a year ago, only for the financial crisis to provide the opportunity for the prime minister to retrieve his position. It is still underappreciated just how close Britain came to a meltdown of its entire banking system so total that the cash machines would have stopped working. Businesses would have stopped paying their employees; parents wouldn't have been able to feed their families.

Whatever its other failings, the bank rescue plan last autumn did save Britain from that apocalypse. It also set a standard that was emulated around the world. As Sir John Gieve, who was deputy governor of the Bank of England at the time, says: "It set a pattern which was blessed in Washington, blessed in Paris and more or less followed by the US and the rest of Europe." The international arena also provided the brief respite for his premiership this April when Gordon Brown, in important alliance with Barack Obama, managed to corral the leaders of the G20 in London to come to a confidence-boosting agreement. Could David Cameron have rescued the banks or achieved the agreements at the G20? Could Alan Johnson? These are fair questions for Mr Brown's residual supporters to ask.

The prime minister's close and candid friend, Mark Malloch-Brown, a minister and Labour peer, praises his capacity to "lead the world on these issues". But then he adds the stinger that Gordon Brown doesn't have the same "sure touch" at home and lacks the capacity to talk "in language that ordinary folk understand" which makes him "not the powerful communicator that some other political leaders are here and abroad".

To that criticism are added many more by those who despair of Gordon Brown: an incoherent policy agenda and an inability to inspire; prevarication when he needs to seize the initiative and clumsiness when he finally tries; poisonous spinning against colleagues conducted by the dark side of his operation at Number 10; a hopeless addiction to backfiring tactical wheezes. Giving a peerage to the gruesome Alan Sugar is the sort of frantic, misconceived stunt that is Gordon Brown at his very worst.

That all explains why he dangles by a thread. Yet so far, no one has found a knife sharp enough to cut it. The would-be assassins have proved more indecisive and chaotic than the king they would kill. The plotters only have a slogan: save our seats. They lack a manifesto, they don't have a plausible endgame and they are left without a credible challenger now that his senior colleagues have agreed to carry on serving in Mr Brown's cabinet. Because he was a protege of the last prime minister, James Purnell's resignation was initially and wrongly interpreted as the first move of a Blairite coup. To see these events through the old prism of the Blairite/Brownite split is to misjudge the gravity of Labour's situation and the complexity of its dilemma.

Some Blairites are indeed desperate to see the back of Gordon Brown. So, too, are some Labour MPs who would be thought of as Brownites as are plenty of Labour MPs of neither appellation. Other Blairites are playing a critical role in sustaining Gordon Brown. Peter Mandelson, garlanded with the baroque title of first secretary of state, is now the effective deputy prime minister. He joined the frantic ring-round of other members of the cabinet to try to establish whether James Purnell was a lone gunman or the first shot of a firing squad for Gordon Brown. We can pause for a moment to savour the irony of Lord Mandelson, whose first cabinet career was destroyed by Mr Brown and his acolytes, turning into the prime minister's life-support machine.

The Brownites are also fractured. Alistair Darling is - or, at least, was - a close friend and ally of Gordon Brown. His wife, Maggie, often helps to look after the prime minister's children. The chancellor may have had a charisma bypass, but he has kept his head when many others would have been driven insane by the combination of the worst financial crisis since the war and outrageous briefing against him by the poisoners in the prime minister's gang.

Early on Thursday evening, Mr Brown attempted to bully Mr Darling into leaving the Treasury. Then and again on Friday morning, Alistair Darling pushed back and the prime minister was finally forced to abandon the idea of installing Ed Balls at Number 11. It was a retreat that made him look very weak, but by then he had no alternative. The sort of resignation speech that Alistair Darling could deliver would be fatal to Gordon Brown. The chancellor's hand was strengthened by the terror caused by the Purnell resignation which also made it too risky to try to move David Miliband from the Foreign Office. In sacrificing his job, James Purnell inadvertently helped to secure them in theirs.

The hope that the economy may be in recovery by the spring of next year is a further reason for some to pause before they drive the dagger between the prime minister's shoulder blades. Labour will have a story to tell the voters about how it took the action to alleviate recession and avoid depression while the Conservatives sneered from the sidelines and proposed policies that would have made it worse. To make that story convincing enough to win some credit from the voters, Gordon Brown would have to locate a capacity for communication.

Peter Mandelson has been promising sceptical colleagues that the prime minister has been given such a severe fright that he finally grasps that he must fundamentally change both the way he runs the government and the way he conducts himself. He understands that he has one last chance to work with and make a team of his senior colleagues, to try to restore his authority, convey a sense of purpose to the country and get some momentum back. Even his closest friends concede that this currently looks like mission near-impossible and many others will sigh that Gordon Brown has already proved himself utterly incapable of ever keeping promises to change his ways.

That makes it easy to attack Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and David Miliband as dithering cowards for not dealing the death blow to Gordon Brown when they were presented with the chance, though I can't help laughing when that charge is laid by those who recommended him to us as the messiah just two years ago.

One of the leaders of the backbench assassins says the key is "the P45 test". When Labour MPs have digested the local and Euro elections, they will realise that "they don't have a hope in hell" of keeping their seats without a change of leadership. Yet if the calculus were really that straightforward the key figures in the cabinet would have moved in for the kill on Thursday night. "The P45 test" cuts both ways. There's no good polling evidence yet that changing leader will rescue Labour from its plight. Is Alan Johnson really the man the Tories fear? Maybe he is. I wonder, though, why the Conservatives are not keeping that fear to themselves if it were entirely true.

Gordon Brown will be within his rights to fight a challenge, as did both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Tony Blair, it is true, did buckle under the pressure of a backbench uprising and agree to resign. Since it was Gordon Brown's gang who executed that coup, it would be poetic justice for him to go the same way. But the positions are not analogous. Mr Blair had won three elections and enjoyed a decade at Number 10. That made it easier to embrace leaving, especially when he was given almost a further year to say goodbye. If Gordon Brown is defenestrated in the next few weeks, he will have been prime minister for less than two years. Not since Neville Chamberlain was toppled in 1940 after the Nazi invasion of Norway has a British prime minister been removed without being allowed to fight one general election. And it took the menace of Hitler and the availability of Churchill to do that.

"I'm not walking away," he says, a declaration of steeliness designed to warn mutineers that they will have to break his fingers before they'll prise them off the doorknob of Number 10. To pile peril on danger on hazard, coup-minded Labour MPs cannot be certain that they will end up with the result they intended. They may set off with the goal of putting Alan Johnson into Number 10 and wake up two months later to find that they'd installed Harriet Harman.

A grisly struggle to force out Gordon Brown and an internecine war for the succession would then be followed by enormous pressure for an early election which would be a chainsaw massacre for Labour. That is why the cabinet clings on to a massively wounded prime minister - for fear of something worse.

(This was my comment on Planet Observer's website. One of the reasons I've posted it here is because it'll probably be deleted once the moderators wake-up.)

Not one mention in this piece about the needs and desires of the British electorate. Tells you all you need to know about Labour and its tame commentariat.

Brown is finished whether the supine idiots in the Labour Party care to do anything about it or not. Not to worry, though. When we do finally get that General Election of which Brown has been so very terrified for so long, we'll do it for them.

As for lame counterfactuals about what the Tories would have done about a banking system wrecked by Brown's destruction of a regulatory structure that worked, well, they represent about as desperate an argument for keeping this God-awful PM as could be conceived. But, astonishingly, that's the narrative these people want you to swallow, folks: "Brown saves the world". Pure Balls-Mandelson spin and hopelessly dishonest. The real Gordon Brown is the one that lies about the attempted sacking of his 'friend' Darling to a room full of journalists in a news conference and lies about his plan for gigantic cuts in public spending , following a (thankfully highly improbable no matter what happens) victory in the next election, moments later at the same gathering. The real Gordon Brown will destroy anything and anyone - and say anything - to cling on to power. He is a classic demagogue.

I'll offer an alternative counterfactual, and one which has the evidence of history to support it: "the banking crisis in Britain never would have even happened had the Tories been in power". Like it? If not, why not? I suspect it is because the reality is that blind prejudice informs Labour's and its dwindling tribe's judgment rather than a basic ability rationally to evaluate events. That's why Labour is such a total train wreck now, humiliating Britain on the world stage daily, still convinced its wild fantasy that it is still fit for office is - or was ever - true. Everything is "viewed through a prism" of self-satisfaction and spin. "Progressive"? My ar**.

Not getting rid of Gordon "Obama Beach" Brown will see Labour out of power for generations with them likely going the way of the Liberals in the early C20th, at least in England. A-level students twenty years from now will be reading in political history books chapters entitled "Socialist Sunset: the Collapse of the Labour Party in 2010" or some such. And do you know how the first sentence of a text of that nature will go? Something like this:
"For the past two decades since last the Labour Party held power, historians and others have speculated that it might well have weathered the storm of unpopularity often experienced by dying governments and remained one of the big two political parties in Britain if only it had removed Gordon Brown as its leader in 2009..."
Food for thought for the PLP over the next couple of days, then.

Yup. I think I agree with myself on that one. Or maybe I don't. No, I do. I can't remember if I did, now. Did what? What was the question again?

See. Reading the Observer can damage your brain.


  1. An excellent response to a horribly convoluted article. I don't know about you but watching Labour tear itself apart is delicious!

  2. Agreed :)

    I just wish they'd get on with it...

  3. All good things come to he who waits...hopefully not too long mind!

  4. Afghanistan Banana Stand6/07/2009 02:21:00 pm

    The EU results tonight should make for delicious TV.

    Plus another resignation or two by midnight

    I've waited 12 years for this moment...

  5. Afghanistan Banana Stand6/07/2009 02:46:00 pm

    Nice to see a fellow South Walian who wants Labour out as much as me!

  6. Great writing - think I followed to here from Guido/Dale - whatever - you is now *BOOKMARKED*

  7. Grrvais: I is very pleased! Will tell me Julie ;)

    ABS: There are more and more of us popping-up every day. How long have Labour run South Wales?

    Yeah - too long!


Any thoughts?